Mark Ruffalo on ‘The healing power from our relatives’

Vincent Schilling

‘I Know This Much Is True’ is a six-part HBO series that touches on family histories and the topic of missing and murdered Native women

The award-winning and Oscar-nominated supporting actor Mark Ruffalo is well-known for a plethora of things in today’s film industry, including most-notably his starring role as Dr. Brice Banner/Hulk in the Marvel Universe, and Avengers: Endgame, the highest money-making movie in history. Ruffalo is also well-known for his activism and his alliances to Indian Country issues as he has traveled to Standing Rock at the height of the NoDAPL protests and stood in alliance with Native water protectors.

(See Related: Mark Ruffalo in Standing Rock; Leo DiCaprio, Jesse Jackson Head to Standing Rock)

More recently, Ruffalo joined actor Paul Rudd (Avengers: Endgame, Ant Man) Indigenous director Taika Waititi and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in a Facebook Live Stream titled “Calling All Heroes to Protect the Sacred” in order to spread the message regarding the spread of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation as well as in other Native communities across the country.

(See Related: Mark Ruffalo, Paul Rudd, and Taika Waititi join Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and frontline organizers to address the growing COVID-19 crisis on the Navajo Nation)

But most recently, Mark Ruffalo as executive producer has released in conjunction with HBO, a six-part mini-series titled “I Know This Much Is True”

The six-part series is based on the novel by Wally Lamb and explores the life story of two brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, both played by Ruffalo.

I Know This Much Is True

Dominick is a house-painter struggling to deal with his paranoid schizophrenia brother, Thomas, who has progressively gotten worse as he has aged, and Dominick, who makes a promise to care for his brother to his dying mother, works to get him out of a maximum-security facility after a troubling incident.

In the movie, Dominick also embarks on a quest to learn about his own family history, which delves into the themes of Italian immigrants, Native Americans in the beginnings of America and more.

In a conversation with Mark Ruffalo, the awarding-winning actor discusses his understanding of Dominick and Thomas and talks about his appreciation of Indian Country and why he directs his efforts to stand as an Indian Country ally.

Vincent Schilling: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me and Indian Country Today. I was really thrilled when the HBO folks reached out regarding: "I Know This Much Is True." I have my list of questions, but first of all, Mark, what resonates with you about this project?

Mark Ruffalo: Being in COVID… it's really about how important our relations are. It's just something that I think we all take for granted because we're so busy all the time. But it's where all the meaning in our lives actually comes from where we learned, where we grow, where we are most vulnerable. That’s really what I was struck by in this story and how intergenerational relations affect us.

When we are working on healing ourselves, we're actually working on healing the whole of those intergenerational things that we are carrying, that, as no fault of our own, we are left to deal with.

Vincent Schilling: As if we are left to pick out the strand by strand DNA damage of intergenerational trauma?

Mark Ruffalo: Basically, yes.

Vincent Schilling: This historical curse that you carry in the portrayal of your character, Dominick, goes through tragedy after tragedy. Every bit of it, at least for me, and considering all of the intergenerational trauma in Indian Country as well as things I have experienced in my own life, I recognized all of it.

Importantly in this story, there are some resonating Native themes and Native actors such as Michael Greyeyes and Tatanka Means that all help foster the story told in “I Know This Much Is True.”

Mark Ruffalo: Those Native themes have been very healing to me and give me a context of a world that gives it meaning, that gives it resonance and makes you not feel so alone. My friend Chuck Archambault has been teaching me words in the Lakota language. The one concept that I've known, but I didn't really fully understand was Mitakuye Oyasin, which is ‘We are all related.’ That's like everything, the mineral world and the plant world and the animal world and the sky world. To understand, and to look out my window and say, ‘I'm related to that tree and I'm related to those bushes and that bird’ has had a really nice healing and soothing impact on me.

And so, thematically that's in the story, you know? And of course the whole thing is rounded out. But of course, we didn't want this to be the magical Native.

[Michael Greyeyes’ character] gives Dominick a huge gift, and I think it’s the beginning of healing for Dominick. Where he comes from is so essentially part of the American story and the trauma.

When I read this like five years ago. I didn't know what the impact the Native part of the story was going to have on my own life and parallel my life. I fought next to the Haudenosaunee and the Onondaga to stop fracking in New York state. I remember sitting tipi with Mona Polacca and the water prayer, and we were fighting for our mother. Every single time in my despair, I've been sort of shepherded along by my Native friends and your philosophy and your resilience. And so, it was really beautiful and moving to me that this story would honor that and bring that into the framing of the immigrant experience here.

Vincent Schilling: That wasn't always a beautiful history.

Mark Ruffalo: F--k no!

Vincent Schilling: So, how was this story brought to you?

'I Know This Much is True' image courtesy HBO (4)
Mark Ruffalo as Dominick Birdsey (right) and his twin brother Thomas (left) in a scene from 'I Know This Much is True' on HBO. (Courtesy HBO)

Mark Ruffalo: Wally Lamb has had it at 20th Century Fox for 16 years. They've been trying to develop it and make it into a movie and he told me, ‘I think they had 22 different drafts of trying to make it a movie.’ Lamb’s literary agent reached out and she said, ‘Wally Lamb's book, "I Know This Much Is True", is about to come out of Fox. And he expressly asked if you would be interested in optioning it and making it.’ And I hadn't read it at the time. All of my friends had read it and they'd loved it. And me being dyslexic and a little ADHD, I still literally read it in a weekend. I literally just laid in bed for three days and just, I was working on another job and I loved it. And it just moved me, the Italian American experience, the fact that they're not a bunch of gangsters, but the feeling of a family curse, I can relate to, mental illness, that's in there. The sibling relationships are universal. I mean, that's where it all sort of lives in us.

And then, this redemptive thing in the end where there is great in our lives. We do have to be human to really live the human experience. If you're not on social media, people f--king suffer, man. And we suffer loss and we suffer despair and we suffer setbacks. But we do have some grace and that is in our ability to forgive each other and ourselves to love, to find love, to see that we all are related in some way, that there are things that, whatever Creator had in mind, there was some grace for us, that we weren't made to suffer without some treasure that was given back to us by our suffering.

And, that's our growth as human beings, you know? And, I just felt like it was heavy enough and challenging enough that it would be impossible to do, which was appealing to me as an actor and just pushing yourself as an artist, just constantly keep pushing yourself. And I was moved by it. I was really moved by it. And that was pretty much the thing that made me say, "I have to make it." So it's just how much I was moved by how much I did relate to it.

Vincent Schilling: I was moved by it. I was moved by every bit of it. And saying that, and because I'm obsessed with the Marvel universe, I do want to recognize you for the work you've done in the Marvel universe. Of course, that's an aspect of your life that you've been doing it for many, many years. And as you have played Bruce Banner and the Hulk, I pigeonholed you in a sense, not locked you in, but just recognized your work within that arena.

But watching this and seeing what you did brought you to a new level. I also appreciated a tremendous performance by Rosie O’Donnell.

'I Know This Much is True' image courtesy HBO (2)
Mark Ruffalo as Dominick Birdsey talks with a maximum-security facility social worker Lisa Sheffer, portrayed by Rosie O'Donnell in a scene from 'I Know This Much is True' on HBO. (Courtesy HBO)

Mark Ruffalo: She's a revelation! That scene at the wake when she sees Dominic is just so beautiful.

Vincent Schilling: Also excellent acting by Michael Grayeyes, Tatanka Means, and other Native actors, as well as Archie Punjabi. John Procaccino who portrayed your stepfather Ray Birdsey was also excellent.

Mark Ruffalo: He's so great. He's another revelation.

Vincent Schilling: In this story, you addressed the topic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Without giving anything away in terms of the storyline, you addressed the issue without giving a resolution to the audience. This resonated with me because so many families are left without a resolution in real life. You brought up this issue, and you don't answer the question.

Mark Ruffalo: No. So there aren't answers. That's Wally Lamb.

Vincent Schilling: Your character Dominick is a man with an incredible life struggle and is a rage-aholic guy who is completely codependent with his mentally challenged brother. I can't imagine the journey as an actor that you went on because it was an incredible emotional investment, an incredibly emotional journey. And in order to do this, you had to dive all in. But what I need to know is how you emerged from all this, coming out of this emotional train wreck that you can't look away from that for some reason, the smoke clears. And what do you feel like coming out of it? And it's almost like you watched, or you went into combat and came out and okay. Maybe everyone around you kind of died, but you walked out of the rubble and I'm just curious what you feel, having surfaced from all of this?

Mark Ruffalo: Me, personally?

Vincent Schilling: Yes

Mark Ruffalo: I'll tell you, when it first aired that first night, I was kind of devastated. I mean, I felt really exposed and vulnerable and I didn't know how, a lot of the reviews were like, "This is too heavy for this time we're living in." That was a big sentiment, and I was feeling kind of devastated. Our Rotten Tomatoes was like 50 percent. We were not doing very well.

And I'll tell you something, you have to work your ass off to make a bad project. And so it's always a lot of work and to see it, it felt like, "Oh, no, maybe this is the wrong time. Maybe the world is not in this place to have this kind of discussion." Although that would be really sad.

I find it to be very cathartic. I find it to be oddly soothing to see something that's so real and human in this moment of hysterics and hysteria and cynical laughter and just such cynicism. And, so I was like, ‘Well, maybe you're wrong." And then it's started turning around and people started to get it. And our audience is actually building and HBO is really happy. And so that was cool.

It was cathartic for me because. Well, you learn that you have to heal, you have to forgive yourself too. And, that's the hardest part, oddly enough. It's not forgiving the other people, it's really forgiving yourself and you can't really forgive anybody else until you can forgive yourself, I feel like. And so that's been the grace of it, was it was being whole enough. There was a line that I wanted to add at the end where [Dominick] says, "Thomas was right. I am him," It's the story of the twins being this mythologically divided whole. And it's coming to wholeness and in some way, I feel like in the end I made that journey myself a little bit more whole than I was when I started, a little bit more like in forgiveness and for myself too, which is really the hard part.

'I Know This Much is True' image courtesy HBO (1)
In an outtake moment, Mark Ruffalo as Dominick Birdsey talks with Dr. Patel, portrayed by Archie Panjabi in a scene from 'I Know This Much is True' on HBO. (Courtesy HBO)

Vincent Schilling: I saw reality in everything you did. And no matter what anybody else in this world says, I recognized it. It resonated with me. And I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe many Native people are going to get it as well.

Mark Ruffalo: Really?

Vincent Schilling: Yes. Sometimes middle America might get upset if there's too much sugar on their Cheerios. But so many Native people — in my view — might more easily recognize and feel a resonance to such extreme struggle as is experienced by your character.

So, Mark, I would be remissed if I didn’t recognize your efforts to be an ally to Indian Country. So many people in Indian Country have openly expressed appreciation for your efforts in helping Native people get their voice out there, who wouldn't otherwise have a voice.

Mark Ruffalo: I know, and it's amazing. 'Cause it's taking root, it's like every step is a little bit deeper and a little bit more engaged and people are listening and the world is listening and it's exciting, man. And, I didn't have anything to do with that. That's the Native people. That's the resilience.

Vincent Schilling: Yeah you did. Mark. You're allowed to be in this too.

Mark Ruffalo: I like being there.

Vincent Schilling: Why is it so important to you to do so much that you do as an ally for Indian Country?

Mark Ruffalo: I don't know, there's something kindred there. It’s a response to the sweetness of the Native people I know and then, the injustice. It is so astounding to me. I feel the same way about people of color in America. It is just the depth of injustice. And that's really moving to me. It’s just the amount of heart and humility and decency.

And whatever that struggle is, it has left — from what I know and what I've seen — the Native people with this just really deep wisdom and humility and hearts.

I said to my friend Chuck, ‘Native people cringe when you say something hard against somebody, even if it's someone that's doing them wrong. I can see it. They laugh, but it's an uncomfortable laugh and they never really want to engage in that. I was like, what is that?’ He was like, ‘We love so deeply from our heart and we are all related. We really see the world is all related,"

It's just very moving to me and I relate to it. And some of the ceremonies that I've done, I've gotten a lot from it. I know a lot of the stories have been lost and I know that, because of the boarding schools, I know there was an active campaign to wipe out the Native people's knowledge, their culture and that was active on the highest level of government in the United States. That's such a shame to me and I just feel like you guys belong here and if anything is American, it's you, and people don't understand this, but our whole government was founded on the concept of Native American governance.

Vincent Schilling: Yes, I understand, our system of checks and balances were formed upon the Iroquois system of beliefs for the House and the Senate and office of the president. But there was one other council that the forefathers did include, and that was the Council of Women Elders.

Mark Ruffalo: I know.

Vincent Schilling: And the Council of Women Elders could remove a chief from his position if they didn't like him. Now, of course, the founding fathers wouldn't have that position, but can you imagine if we had a council of women who could remove our president from his position?

Mark Ruffalo: Oh my god!

Vincent Schilling: So essentially all they did is create another patriarchy. And if they had done that, I had a guy ask me one time, "Well then what's the point of being chief?" I said, "That's exactly the point." Should be the type of chief that the women would allow you to still be there. If you are, then you're doing it right.

Mark Ruffalo: That's right.

Vincent Schilling: I want to mention one more thing I noticed in this mini-series, namely the interaction with you and Michael Greyeyes at the end.

Mark Ruffalo: Love him.

Vincent Schilling: It’s a beautiful moment of your interaction with him — in that even though you were dismissive to his sister in school — he welcomed you.

Mark Ruffalo: Yeah. He was like, ‘You know what, I'm not going to turn my back on you. I'm not going to treat you in this colonial way where it's tit for tat and it's all transactional. I hold my space decently because that's what I learned. That's my belief." And that's really powerful.

I love Michael, and we said like, ‘Michael, what should this be? What should this moment be?’ He told us.

Vincent Schilling: You play two parts, Dominick and his twin brother Thomas. But this story is more than about twins.

Mark Ruffalo: They want a journey about America. You know, that division between Dominic and Thomas is really a version of the masculinity that is divided against itself, that's not whole.

“And in the end, Dominick is keyed into wholeness by a discovery about himself. That's not a mistake. That's not just a happenstance that has some design in it. And so for me, that's what I'm hoping, that it's a microcosm of this greater story that's unfolding about integration and wholeness. And certainly due to this unrevealed discovery, Dominick’s ability to learn from this ... is the proper end of the story.”

You can watch "I Know This Much Is True" now on HBO. For details see the HBO site page here: https://www.hbo.com/i-know-this-much-is-true

You can also read the #NativeNerd movie review here.

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Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, on Twitter @VinceSchilling and Instagram @VinceSchilling.  Email - vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com

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